At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in China, leaf infusion as we
know it now became popular. The earliest examples of teapots come from this
period, made from the zisha, or "purple" clay, of the YiXing region of China.
Pottery in the YiXing tradition has been strong since the Sung Dynasty
(960-1279); wares are valued for their fine texture, thin walls, and naturally
beautiful coloration ranging from light buff to deep maroon tones. The
transition from drinking bowls to teapots was a smooth one. YiXing teapots were,
and still are, used to brew tea as well as act as the drinking vessel -- one
sips directly from the spout of a single-serving pot. YiXing teapots gradually
season, the unglazed clay absorbing the flavor of brewed tea, making them a
favorite choice for tea lovers. The dissemination of YiXing teapots greatly
influenced not only the forms of teapots found throughout the world, but also
prompted the invention of hard-paste porcelain in the western world.
According to Chou Kao-ch'i, author of Yang-Hsien ming hu hsi, an account of
Yixing(pronounced yeeshing) teapots,
early in the sixteenth century, the potters at Ihing, a few miles
up to Yangtze from Shanghai, became famous for teapots known to Europeans by the
Portuguese name boccarro (large mouth). These were small, individual pots. which
came to Europe with teas and served as models for the first European teapots.
Other scholars have discounted this history and say that the Chinese, though
they provided Europe with her first tea, did not historically use teapots.
Instead they brewed tea directly in the cup, letting the leaves sink to the
bottom before drinking. Such teacups are still used in many Chinese restaurants
today, however the modern productions are clumsy and rough as compared with
those turned out during the latter half of the Ming dynasty.
Some believe the design source for teapots may have come from one of two
influences reaching Europe in the mid-1600's. The first was the Islamic coffee
pots, which were first seen in the popular coffee houses of Europe and England
during this period. (Indeed, for some years there was no design difference
between coffee pots and teapots.) The second design source might have been the
Chinese wine vessels then being imported as a curiosity piece. Unsure what its
purpose was, it may have been assumed it was used with the imported tea in which
it was packed (literally, to prevent breakage during the long trip from China.)
The Earl Cadogan, whose estates were located in Staffordshire, the future center
of English porcelain production, was the first Englishman recorded to have owned
such a Chinese "wine pourer". It was globular in shape, foreshadowing the future
design of the majority of teapots produced in Europe.
Teapots as European invention
It can then be said, that though tea was originally Chinese, the teapot design
of today is basically European. The first teapots created in Europe were of a
heavy cast with short, straight, replaceable spouts unlike the first teapot made
by the Chinese which was similar to the wine pourer but very unsuitable for the
purpose. (The latter was important as the pottery was fragile and spouts often
broke.) Other variations that occurred during this early period were octagonal
and melon shaped teapots as well as "fantasy" teapots designed as plants or
animals. Such teapots favored domestic forms such as squirrels and rabbits or
newer "exotic" forms such as camels, monkeys, and bunches of bamboo. These early
teapots were, however, viewed as failures due to the poor quality of clay and
workmanship. Europe, though she had "designed" the teapot, lacked the porcelain
technology to produce a quality teapot. Around 1700 porcelain is discovered
by a German alchemist B?ttger at Meissen in Germany in 1708. This discovery was
critical to the spread of tea drinking in Europe because until this time
European pottery could not withstand the heat of boiling water.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the East India Company,
recognized the growing demand for such items as teapots and began importation in
larger numbers. The increased cargo served an additional function-that of
ballast in the trade ships. The company commissioned china directly from Chinese
artists and craftsmen, using patterns sent from England and geared to European
tastes, stereotypes, and market values. Designs fell into four main areas:
mock-ups of Oriental designs (such as "Blue Willow" and "The Tree of Life"),
designs adapted from European prints (such as the famous Georgian "house"
teapots), armorials (bearing the coat of arms for major European families), and
the innovative teapots (such as those with the now standard spout drain on the
interior of the teapot). Company directors were especially concerned that
teapots not drip and so stain the valuable linen that they also marketed.
Porcelain is 'a hard vitrified translucent ceramic' (The Concise Oxford
Dictionary), and china is 'a kind of fine white or
translucent ceramic ware' (The Concise Oxford Dictionary), i.e. they have
separate definitions. But as Fowler (1926) remarked, 'Porcelain is china, and
china is porcelain; there is no recondite difference between the two things,
which indeed are not two, but one.' Nevertheless there are differences of use;
e.g. someone making preparations for an important tea party might well say
I must get out my best china (not my best
porcelain). But ornaments and vases, for example, may equally well be
described as made of china or made of porcelain.
The etymology of the word "porcelain" is traced to the term "porcella," the
Italian name for cowrie shells. Porcelain had the same shiny veneer and
whiteness as these natural objects. "Soft-paste" porcelain refers to works
produced with glass-like materials before Bottger discovered the method for
producing European "hard-paste" porcelain, a substance strong enough to
withstand cutting with steel.
In Germany, Johann Bottger of Meissen worked as an alchemist for King Augustus
of Poland. Augustus had a penchant for Chinese pottery and wanted gold to buy,
among other things, fine teapots. Soon Bottger was instructed to throw all of
his energy into discovering a European equivalent to the kaolin rich clay and
petuntse rock of Chinese porcelain. The Chinese had been firing pieces of hard
porcelain as early as 618 CE -- their idea of porcelain was defined not by color
or translucence, but rather by the musical note achieved when a piece was
But by the mid-1700's the technique was being copied in England and France.
As Baroque and Rococo designs began to appear,
they were adapted into porcelain production. Though teapots largely remained
globular in shaped, some pear shaped ones were popular. Spouts were often shaped
as dragons or other animals. Handles were elaborately embellished with scrolls
and similar designs.
In Europe a soft-paste porcelain, made solely from clay and ground glass and
fired at 1,200°C, was produced in an effort to duplicate Chinese porcelain. This
material was not a true porcelain, being much less hard and fine.
Large-scale porcelain manufacture did not begin in the West until new
deposits of kaolin were found, such as those in Cornwall, England. These were
fired at a temperature of 1,450°C. The first major Western development was the
discovery of bone china by the British potter Josiah Spode in about 1800. Spode
added calcined bone to hard paste mixes to produce a hybrid porcelain, still
widely used in the UK. Porcelain is also a useful engineering ceramic, with
properties similar to alumina, that is used in many
electrical insulating applications.
Some sources say Queen Victoria was the first to have her tea served from a silver teapot.
Tea tastes better brewed in a china pot, but she was the Queen and liked hers from a silver pot.
It is at 1730's that the first silver service pots for tea only were
designed. Simple globular shaped designs soon gave way to straight-sided silver
teapots. These in turn were replaced by the oval shaped teapots of the 1770's.
The American patriot Paul Revere was the most famed silversmith of the young
nation. Indeed, his favorite portrait shows him holding one such teapot. By the
1780's footed teapots appeared, designed to protect tabletops from heat
scarring. Although pewter teapots appeared throughout the Georgian (Colonial
Period) for those unable to afford silver teapots, they were seldom produced in
any number after the 1790's. Reflecting the "classic" designs favored by the new
French Republic, teapots were, for a short, but beautiful period, shaped as a
drum. Porcelain historians have often wondered if this "drum" shape
subconsciously reflected the Napoleonic Wars to soon roll across Europe.
Kraak was a new style of
blue and white porcelain made at Jingdezhen in the late 16th to early 17th
centuries. Kraak wares were traded by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the
Spanish. They have been found not only in Europe but also in West Asia and along
the Californian coast of America. The term kraak may derive from carrack,
a type of Portuguese ship which first took such wares to Europe. Two Portuguese
carracks sunk by rival Dutch traders in the 16th century yielded around one
million pieces which were auctioned in Amsterdam, and thus started the trend for
collecting kraak in the 17th century. Kraak also means 'easily
breakable' in Dutch; a characteristic which can be seen in the thinly potted
walls and a glaze that tends to flake off at the rims.